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Because intonation is so important in forming questions in English, some example questions in this entry are accompanied by diagrams that show their intonation patterns. The diagram is a line that traces the pitch movement throughout the question.

Guides for Forming Wh- Questions

The Wh- Questions are questions formed with a question word, such as who, whom, whose, what, which, when, where, why or how. These question words are also called INTERROGATIVE WORDS.

Forming Wh- Questions

The question words who and what can ask for information about the subject of the verb or the object of the verb. Consider the declarative sentence below:

  • The boy lost his bicycle.

NOTE: There are various constituents in the sentence above that could be questioned with a wh- question.

For instance, we could pose a question about the subject (the boy), as in 1a, or we could ask about the object (his bicycle)—as is the case in 1b.

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Wh- Questions About an Object

When any object—i.e., direct objectOpens in new window, indirect objectOpens in new window, or object of a prepositionOpens in new window—in a declarative sentenceOpens in new window is questioned and the sentence contains an auxiliary verbOpens in new window, a modal verbOpens in new window, or copular be, two rules come into play: wh- movement and subject-aux inversionOpens in new window.

For example, the wh- question in 2a) asks for information about the direct object in sentence 2b). The steps that are followed to produce 2a) are shown in 2c) and 2d).

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First, the object, something, is converted into the appropriate wh- question word, what, and this is moved to the beginning of the sentence by the process of wh- movement (also referred to as wh- fronting). Subsequently, subject-aux inversion switches the positions of the subject, you, and the auxiliary verb, are.

If the underlying sentence does not contain an auxiliary verb, a modal verb, or copular be, then a slightly different process is applied to create a wh-question. This process is shown in 3).

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Wh- movement is applied in 3c), followed by do insertion and a change of the verb to its bare infinitive form, shown in 3d).

Wh-questions usually begin with a wh- word, but there are exceptions. For instance, when asking a question about the object of a preposition in a declarative sentence, as in 4), two possible question patterns may be used.

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In 4a), someone is the object of the preposition with. In 4b), we see that someone has been converted to the wh- question word who, which has been moved to the front of the sentence.

However, in 4c) the preposition with has been moved to the front of the sentence along with the wh- word. The wh- word has been changed from who to whom.

Both of these question forms are grammatically acceptable, but 4c) is considered by some to be more appropriate for formal or academic writing.

Wh- Questions About a Subject

When the subject of a declarative sentence is questioned, no fronting or inversion rules apply. The subject is simply converted into the appropriate wh- word. This is illustrated in 5).

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“Wh-” Questions with “How” + Adjective/Adverb

In English “how” combines with adjectives and adverbs to form questions beginning with how many, how long, how often, etc., as shown in 6).

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Embedded “Wh-” Questions

“Wh-” questions can be embedded inside a longer sentence, as the case is in 7).

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NOTE: When a “wh-” question about an object is embedded in this way, it does not undergo subject-aux inversion or “do” insertion. Instead, only “wh-” movement is applied. Notice the difference between the regular “wh-” questions and their embedded versions in 8).

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Note that “wh-” questions may differ depending on the kind of content information the asker seeks. In the next entry, we discuss the different Types of “Wh-” QuestionsOpens in new window

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  • References
    • The Teacher's Grammar of English with Answers: A Course Book and Reference Guide (Negation [2008:66-69]) By Ron Cowan

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